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Respiratory Illness & Air Pollution

Christine Johnson

Air quality, both good and bad, strongly influences your respiratory health. Poor air quality can have a wide range of potential health effects depending on the type of pollutant and the amount of exposure. These health effects include causing illness or exacerbating existing health problems. Respiratory illnesses can affect anyone, but may disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, such as young children, the elderly, and the sick. The health effects caused by air pollution can have both short-term and long-term consequences.

What Are Respiratory Diseases and Illnesses?

Respiratory diseases, also called lung diseases, are a range of disease that stop the lungs from functioning properly. Lung diseases can be cause by fungi, bacteria, or viruses, and respiratory disease are the leading cause of death in the United States. 

Respiratory illnesses, on the  other hand, are usually less specific than respiratory diseases. If you feel unwell, but you haven't yet gone to see a doctor and receive a diagnosis, this would be an illness rather than a disease. Sometimes we just don't have a label to place on respiratory symptoms, so we call these respiratory illnesses. 

Respiratory Diseases and Illnesses Due to Air Pollution

Air pollution can cause acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) health effects. It is important to note that poor air quality can induce both acute and chronic respiratory problems, which have different symptoms.

Acute respiratory illness

An acute respiratory effect is an almost immediate reaction to poor air quality. Symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth, or skin. These symptoms will typically go away soon after leaving the polluted area; however, people who are more sensitive to air quality or are regularly exposed to pollution may have more serious symptoms. 

Any area with air pollution can potentially induce an acute respiratory response. Places with a lot of busy industry or traffic can have air pollution, but people should also be mindful of indoor pollution levels, which can be 2 to 5 times worse than ambient air pollution levels. 

Chronic respiratory diseases

Chronic respiratory diseases develop as a result of repeated exposure to poor air quality over time. In these cases, symptoms do not fully subside, even after leaving the polluted environment. They can cause or exacerbate health problems that affect the lungs and heart. These diseases include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchiectasis
  • Emphysema
  • Asthma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Cancers, including lung cancer

Respiratory diseases caused by repeated, long-term exposure to poor air quality are often due to pollution in the home, at work, or other frequently visited places.

Protecting Yourself From Respiratory Illness

The best way to prevent respiratory illness is to limit exposure to air pollution, and take appropriate precautions when exposure is unavoidable. On days when air quality is bad, wear a mask, use an air filter, close the window, and avoid areas with lots of traffic. Take time to test your air quality and understand what your risks are in places where you spend a lot of time. Use proper safety equipment at work, and properly store or get rid of pollutants at home.  

Air pollution comes in many forms, and you may not be able to avoid exposure completely; however, you can be proactive about monitoring your air quality and your health. Respiratory illnesses are a result of a variety of genetic, behavioral, and other medical factors; in order to understand what your specific risks are, consult with a medical professional.

Related Respiratory Illness & Air Pollution Resources

If you want to learn more about how air pollution can cause or worse respiratory illnesses and disease, take a look at some of our articles listed below: